By Avellon Williams
Workers in Trinidad and Tobago have been feeling a keen sense of betrayal by their respective representative trade unions during these harsh economic times wrought upon them due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Public Services Association (PSA) elected representative for the St Ann’s Hospital, Preston George, is one of the union members who feel this desertion intensely. “The unions have failed us!” George tells Africa Equity Media.
Workers, George says, genuinely believe that the majority of their union leaders are not seeking the interests of the rank-and-file membership. Rather, they are seeking the interests of themselves and their close friends, in some cases even cutting deals with sitting governments for financial gain and exchange for not actively seriously engaging those administrations in crucial negotiations to the benefit of workers.
Indeed, George says union members believe not enough has been done to offer them adequate protection, especially during the current economic climate where huge chunks of the country’s budget have been pumped into fighting the pandemic.
It is to be noted that most workers are still living on 2013 salaries in 2021 when the cost of living has increased astronomically. This is mainly due to the failings of PSA leader Watson Duke, who prior to COVID-19 told the Government’s Chief Personnel Officer (chief wage negotiator), a five per cent salary increase across the board was not enough, thus denying workers even a minimal increase in their wages. The rejection of the Government’s offer was done with minimal consultation with the rank-and-file union membership.
Before Trinidad and Tobago’s last General Elections in August 2020, there was a big hullabaloo by the PSA president about hazard pay and insurance coverage for frontline workers during COVID-19.
However, the elections have come and gone and one year later, the proposed hazard pay and special insurance coverage remain fleeting illusions. With Duke also being the leader of a political party — The Progressive Democratic Patriots — labor issues, it seems, only be important to him during election campaigning, when he uses it as a threat to the incumbent government in the hope of influencing voters.
But George says the PSA members now realize that trumpeting their cause at election time was just a ploy to solicit their votes. Since the elections have passed, their critical labor issues have been placed on the backburner.
George is of the firm view that worker rights issues should not be used to gain political office.
“Politicians are accustomed to making secret deals in order to maintain the status quo, so no political leader party can truly represent the needs of workers. Politicians are by nature self-serving so that workers’ issues are seen as mere vehicles to attain political power,” George says.
Saying past union leaders of the ilk of Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, George Weekes and those who inherited their roles in the likes of today’s Michael Annisette (National Trade Union Centre) and James Lambert (National Union of Government and Federated Workers’ Union), are seen as servants of the people.
“How can any trade union leader declare on the eve of Labour Day that the trade union movement is dead and still be the leader of a powerful union and also leader of one of the umbrella trade union bodies?” George asked as he referred to a statement made by Duke during this year’s Labour Day recognition on June 19, 2021, where trade unions recognized the 82nd anniversary of Butler’s Labour Riots of 1937.
“Such an individual has no place leading any union. He should do the honorable thing and demit office forthwith, or the membership should demand his resignation. He cannot effectively serve two masters. It is either political leader or trade union leader. The workers need effective representation. The days of riding their backs into political office are over. Enough is Enough!”